Portrait of an artist #4 : Mathilde Nivet

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by Mélissa Burckel, artistic director and curator

Mathilde Nivet is a French artist who graduated from the Duperré school in Paris. She decided to devote herself to her passion for decoration by becoming a set designer, creating decors mainly in paper. She tirelessly manipulates this material by questioning the notions of fragility, improvisation, and storytelling. She also designs window displays, creates packaging, and speaks at workshops and conferences in art schools and museums. Her personal works are regularly presented in exhibitions.

It was by pure chance that I discovered the artist Mathilde Nivet. I was walking down rue de Sèvres, in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés district, when I saw, in the window of a luxury boutique, a young woman, perched 3 meters high, hanging a floral decoration made entirely of paper … I remember being totally taken in by this poetic garden and by the precise and meticulous gestures of this mysterious tightrope walker. Without thinking, I went into the shop to meet this young artist and asked her name.

A few months later, I contacted Mathilde Nivet within the framework of the creation of an ephemeral museum for a major French brand. A project, unfortunately cancelled, which required a lot of technical and artistic constraints. The constraint in art is a subject that fascinates me, so it seemed interesting to me to discover the point of view of the artist Mathilde Nivet on this subject…

Mélissa Burckel : Hello, Mathilde, how are you ?

Mathilde Nivet : Hi, Mélissa, I’m fine, thank you ! I left Paris to live in the country six months ago and, since then, life is beautiful !

Three words to describe what we’ve been living since March 18th ?

Three words would be too short. Emotional lift ? Tranquility then panic ?

By depriving us of all distraction, and financial means for some, this crisis leads us to think about the essential: with whom, where, and how do we live? Does it suit us ? If not, how can we change things ? But, at the same time, it is difficult to make plans when the future is uncertain; this is what makes the period very difficult for many. 

You are a “set designer” and you mainly create your designs with paper. Why did you choose this material ?

It’s hard to answer, because there are a thousand reasons why I love paper! I’m very attached to the notion of ephemerality, fragility, the idea of not cluttering up the world and of having to enjoy a moment that doesn’t last, and paper is a good reflection of these values. I also like the modesty of this material that everyone knows and which is really anchored in our daily lives. I like the fact that it folds so easily to create without the need for a complex machine to grasp it.

I wanted to discuss with you the subject of collaboration between artist and brand and, more precisely, the notion of constraint in art. We were to collaborate on a project for an ephemeral museum for which I wanted you to create monumental paper flowers… What are the elements that make you say yes to a collaboration ? 

Many parameters are involved, the first being the plastic interest of the project and the universe of the sponsor. The second factor is the time-remuneration ratio. If the project is very time-consuming and poorly remunerated, I will probably refuse unless it gives me the opportunity to explore something really new. And if the project is uninteresting but quick and very remunerative, I will accept and then free up time for personal projects. 

Can you refuse a project because of too complex constraints ?

Yes, if it is really related to a paper technique that only a few Japanese masters would know. But, if not, the constraints don’t scare me, because I’ve learned from experience to surround myself with people who know how to support me. Learning to delegate and knowing how to choose the right partners are important qualities in our business.

You have created an English hanging garden in the Burlington Arcade in London. How long does it take to complete such an installation ?

The longest time was the design time: drawing up the project, making the flower models and all the technical files, defining the best hanging system, finding a suitable transporter, etc. As for production, it took about fifteen days : the flower files were cut by a laser-cutting company, and the elements were cut and shaped by a team of six people for a week. Then I went to London with my main assistant, and with the help of a small local team, we set up the garden during three nights of assembly. It was an exhausting project, but so satisfying! It is by far the achievement of which I am most proud.

You certainly had to meet very precise specifications. What was the most complicated constraint you had to work under ?

It was to quantify the elements to be produced accurately. I was so afraid there wouldn’t be enough flowers that I produced twice as many. As a result, the installation, which was supposed to be ten meters long, was twenty. Consequently, I made very little money on this project, but the result was spectacular ! The installation time is also often difficult to estimate. 

Is your working method always the same, whatever the project ? 

Yes : I usually start with small pencils, then I quickly move on to models. Indeed, I think better with my hands : I don’t like to be purely conceptual by forcing the material to suit an idea. I prefer ideas to be born from the manipulation of the material.

As an artist, do you think that constraints abolish all forms of improvisation in the creative process ? 

No, quite the opposite. Constraints provide a framework in which it’s much easier to compose and they don’t prevent creativity in any way. It’s complete freedom which can sometimes be dizzying and paralyzing. Having constraints also saves time, because in an order, the aim is to satisfy the customer in a generally fairly short time, and knowing what you can or cannot do reduces the margin for error. 

When we first met, you said you wanted to use materials other than paper. So I saw one of your latest creations, a dragon made of bamboo and polyester: was it a desire on your part to work with other materials ? Does this new material require a totally different working method from the one you use for paper ?

My taste for materials is what guides me in my work. I explored paper for fifteen years, and today I want to interfere with the properties of other materials, but always guided by these notions of ephemerality, lightness, and modesty. With polyester, I used the same techniques as for paper (cutting, collage) and I simply added ironing. I liked the shine, suppleness, and solidity of this material, which I explored in two other projects this year.

Your creations plunge us into poetic worlds, enchanting parentheses… Which artists inspire you ?

Concerning sculpture and installations, I am fascinated by the creations of the Korean artist Do-ho Suh, who is technically incredible and subtly melancholic. I have also long appreciated the work of Giuseppe Penone, who reveals the natural material. I am also extremely touched by the works of Rachel Whiteread, who gives matter to the invisible with subtlety and poetry. 

Pictorially, I love Henry Darger’s strange drawings. His sense of composition and color are fascinating. But my strongest influence is surely that of illustrators from my youth whose works I collect : Agnès Rosenstiehl, Quentin Blake, Dick Bruna, Richard Scarry, Emma Adbåge, Gerda Muller, Pierre Probst, Elsa Beskow, and many others. These artists create poetic and enchanting worlds that delight me. When I create, I feel as if they are leaning over my shoulder and whispering advice in my ear. 

Can you tell us about your next projects ?

I am in the process of setting up a creative studio called Manidoro that explores materials. I’ll be the artistic director and I’m looking for nerds of the material to collaborate on projects, notice to amateurs !

Thank you very much, Mathilde !